Well Do You Know The U.S. Constitution?
Judd W. Patton
for the Bicentennial of the Constitution in the Spring of 1987)
today have a confused understanding of the Constitution’s basic tenets and
provisions.” So concluded a
recent national survey of over 1000 Americans.
Apparently many Americans are shockingly ill-informed about the
content, purpose, and significance of the very document that governs our
nation. Are you?
17th, our national will celebrate the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.
Our Constitution is not just another constitution; it is the oldest
living constitution in the world. Of
the 164 nations toady, all but seven have a written constitution.
Over one half of them have been written since 1974.
Ours has endured for 200 years and served as the inspiration and
model for most of the others! Clearly,
it is something very, very special.
Constitution not only united and formed a new nation – E Pluribus Unum
– but it provided the foundation and framework for political and economic
freedom that destined the United States to become the most powerful and
productive nation the world has ever seen!
It is time for
our generation to understand our Constitutional government heritage and
recapture a commitment to the spirit and letter of this remarkable piece of
parchment. “We the People”
must not be ill-informed about the Constitution.
As John Quincy Adams remarked, “You will never know how much it has
cost my generation to preserve your freedom.
I hope you will make good use of it.”
That freedom was established by the Constitution; it will end with
the Constitution’s demise.
the remainder of this article, why not skip ahead to the end of this article
and discover your current “Constitutional IQ?”
Then come back and finish the article to raise your Constitutional
the Constitution’s purpose, content, and significance, it is important to
grasp the historical conditions in the 1780’s.
From the close of the Revolutionary War in 1781, general chaos and
disorder reigned over the land. The
Redcoats were defeated, but now it appeared the 13 States would war against
paralyzed. Trade wars were
heating up among the different States.
Interstate commerce was being stymied by protective tariffs, import
duties, and other regulations. Dozens
of different currencies were circulating, most with little value.
Indeed many citizens in derision plastered their walls with them!
Crime and lawlessness were rampant.
Open hostilities erupted in major confrontations.
Remember Shay’s Rebellion? Even
a group of disgruntled soldiers besieged the State House in Philadelphia
where Congress was meeting! In
short, the nation was on the verge of general anarchy.
statesmen, like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, began calling for
a national constitutional convention to restore law and order.
The date was set for May 14, 1787.
Seventy-two delegates were chosen by twelve states (Rhode Island
refused to send any delegates). But
a quorum of delegates did not arrive in Philadelphia until May 25th.
George Washington was chosen to preside over the convention and James
Madison became the “secretary” by recording the delegate’s debates,
which later earned him the title “Father of the Constitution.”
The task of
creating a new government was not easy.
Disputes among the delegates nearly ended the convention several
times. Nevertheless, after many
concessions and compromises, and nearly four months, 39 of the 55 delegates
(the highest number ever in attendance) signed the completed document.
The historic day: September
17, 1787. And yet the work
was not finished. In accordance
with the Constitution itself, nine states had a ratify it before it would
take effect and a new government could be formed.
ratification was hotly debated and contested.
Many leading men spoke against it.
But by December 7, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify
the Constitution and in just over nine months from the original signing, New
Hampshire became the ninth state on June 21, 1788.
It was now official! For
the record, Virginia and New York ratified on June 26 and July 26, 1788,
with the Constitution, George Washington was elected as the first President
of the United States by the electoral college on February 4, 1789.
John Adams took second in the vote.
He became Vice President. The
first Congress under the Constitution met in New York City on March 4 and
Washington was inaugurated April 30, 1789.
North Carolina and Rhode Island finally ratified the Constitution
after Congress agreed to add a bill of rights (November 21, 1789 and May 29,
Constitution can be read aloud in about 23 minutes!
Frankly, it is quite easy to memorize its nine basic sections.
It consists of the Preamble, seven Articles, and 26 Amendments.
The first 10 Amendments are known as The Bill of Rights.
In outline form
the nine sections cover the following areas:
Statement of Purpose
Article I - The Congress
Article II - The Presidency
Article III - The Supreme Court
Article IV - State and Federal Relationships
Article V - Amending the Constitution
Article VI – General Matters
Article VII – Ratification Process
Bill of Rights - First ten plus 17 additional amendments.
straightforward, isn’t it? Now let’s review each section very briefly.
There is no
question as to the purpose of the Constitution.
Our founding fathers stated it beautifully in the preamble.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more
perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for
the common defense, promoted the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings
of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this
Constitution for the United States of America.”
Article I - The Congress
fathers were very suspicious of government power.
“If men were angels, they would have no need for government,”
said Madison. But our founding
fathers knew men were not angels. Rather
they felt: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Thus they were moved to separate and disperse the power of government
by creating three branches: the
legislative, executive, and judicial. As
Jefferson said, “In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence
in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the
Constitution.” Limitation of
government power, the checks and balances of the three branches of
government, is the central feature of our Constitution.
In the first
Article the founding fathers constructed the legislative branch of the
Federal government. Congress
shall consist of two bodies, the Senate and House of Representatives.
Senators are elected for 6 year terms while Representatives are
elected for 2 year terms. There
are 100 senators (2 per state) and 435 Representatives today.
Congress must publish a journal of their proceedings (Congressional
Record), and they can override a Presidential veto by 2/3 vote in each
Article I also
defines the powers granted to Congress and the powers forbidden to Congress
and the States. For example, Congress can:
collect taxes, borrow money, regulate commerce, coin money, declare
war, and “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying
into execution for foregoing powers.”
But Congress cannot: suspend
a writ of habeas corpus (an order requiring that a prisoner be brought
before a judge to decide whether he is being held lawfully), tax exports,
nor issue titles of nobility. On
the other hand States cannot: make
separate treaties with foreign nations, coin money, issue paper money, place
tariff duties on imports or exports except for small fees to cover the costs
of inspection, nor carry out measures for national defense.
Congress is given 21 powers: 18 in Article I, Section 8, one in Article III,
and two in Article IV. These Powers define (and limit) the role of the
Federal government in our nation. Can you list them?
Article II - The Presidency
defines the conditions and powers of the executive branch of government.
The President of the United States must be at least 35 years old;
receive a salary ($200,000 in 1987,) [Mr. Bush receives $400,000 today] that
cannot be changed during his term in office; and is elected to a four year
term (Amendment 22 limits his service to two terms or eight years.)
President’s responsibilities include being Commander and Chief of the
military forces; giving an annual “State of the Union” report to
Congress; and appointing ambassadors, judges, and other government
officials. Should he die,
resign, or be unable to perform his duties, the Vice-President becomes
President. He can be impeached
for treason, bribery, or other crimes.
Article III - The Supreme Court
This section of
the Constitution establishes the judicial branch of government by means of
the Supreme Court and other “lower” Federal courts.
The Supreme Court, with its nine Justices, can declare
unconstitutional any law - federal, state, or local - that conflicts with
Article IV - Federal-State
required to honor each other’s laws and court rulings.
Thus a person cannot avoid justice by fleeing to another state.
(Returning an accused person is called extradition.)
New states may be admitted to the Union by Congress, but the new
state cannot be formed by dividing or joining existing states.
Another relationship requires the Federal government to ensure that
each state has a “republican form the government.”
That is, the people of each state must elect representatives to
Article V, VI, and VII
establishes an amending procedure for the Constitution.
In brief, Amendments can be proposed by a 2/3 vote of both houses of
Congress. Then 3/4 of the states must ratify the Amendment for it to
become a part of the Constitution. As
an historical fact, there have been 7,000 proposed amendments, 32 have been
submitted to the states, but only 27 have been ratified.
contains the supremacy clause known as the lynchpin of the Constitution.
That is, when state laws conflict with national laws, the latter are
superior. Article VI also
forbids any kind of religious test for holding public office.
simply states that ratification of the Constitution requires 9 states.
The Constitution then concludes with the date, September 17, 1787,
and the signatures of 39 delegates.
The first 10
Amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified December 15, 1791.
These Amendments protect individuals from various acts by the Federal
Amendment establishes the freedom of religion, press, speech, assembly and
petition. The second Amendment
grants the right to bear arms. The
third Amendment disallows the quartering of troops, and the fourth Amendment
protects citizens from illegal search and seizures.
Amendment five specifies the rights of the accused, while the sixth
Amendment guarantees a speedy trial by impartial jury.
The seventh Amendment grants the right to a trial for civil cases,
and the eighth Amendment specifies that there shall be limitations on fines
and punishments. Amendments
nine and ten grant rights to the people and states that may not be specified
in the Constitution.
A few of the
better know Amendments from 11-26 include:
#13 - the abolition of slavery; #14 - the due process Amendment that
guarantees citizens shall not be deprived of life, liberty or property
without due process of law; #16 - authorization of income taxes; #18 - the
prohibition of liquor; #19 - Women’s right to vote; #21 - repeal of
prohibition; and #26 - voting rights for 18-year olds. [Amendment #27 was
adopted on May 7, 1992. It requires that any increase in Congressional pay
not take effect until an election shall have intervened.]
Significance Of The Constitution
fathers understood that freedom has three dimensions.
Freedom from immoral action (moral freedom) and freedom from
arbitrary, dictatorial government (political freedom) are the essential
prerequisites for the freedom to pursue economic pursuits (economic
In regard to
the moral realm John Adams said it best, “Our Constitution was made for a
moral, religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Thomas Jefferson captured the essence of the political realm, “A
wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one
another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of
industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the
bread it has earned. This is
the sum of good government.”
Constitution established that good government.
And in so doing it gave the nation economic freedom known as the free
enterprise system. This
significance of the Constitution was that it was a document on government
and on commerce. Free,
unshackled individuals at last! It
was now up to a moral people to produce an “Economic Miracle.”
Constitution stamped out mercantilism, government barriers to trade and the
granting of special monopoly privileges, and thus ended the anarchy of the
1780s. A sound and honest,
fully redeemable gold and silver dollar was established by 1792.
The road to economic prosperity had been discovered at last!
Constitution is not an outdated document to be shrugged off as something
that cannot or should not be the basis of our political and economic life.
True, it is not perfect. But
it has withstood the trials and tests of 200 years and survived!
Constitution is remarkable. Don’t be ill-informed about its content and significance.
Why not invest 23 minutes to read it?
Make it a goal to study a good book about it.
Then on Constitution Day - each September 17th - you will
be able to celebrate and say:
“I do solemnly affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of
the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will
bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation
freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I
will faithfully discharge my duties as an American citizen.
So help me God.”
Constitution IQ Test
Who is called the “Father of the Constitution?”
b. James Madison
c. George Washington
When was the Constitution signed?
b. July 4, 1776
c. May 25, 1787
How many delegates signed the Constitution?
Which state did not send representatives to the Constitutional
a. North Carolina
c. Rhode Island
What two delegates to the Constitutional Convention became U.S.
a. George Washington
and Thomas Jefferson
b. George Washington and
c. George Washington and
To add an Amendment to the Constitution, how many states must approve
What are the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution called?
a. The 10 Freedoms
b. The Bill of Rights
c. The 10 Commandments
The basic purpose of the Constitution was:
a. To define and limit
the power of government
b. To promote the general
welfare of the nation
c. Both a and b
The powers granted to Congress included each of the following except:
a. Lay and collect
b. Print money
c. Declare war
The 18th Amendment on Prohibition of liquor was repealed
a. 1 year
b. 3 years
c. 15 years
The President of the United Stated must be:
a. a college graduate
b. 35 years of age
c. A former congressman
The U.S. Supreme Court:
of 9 judges appointed for life
of 9 former Senators
c. Is under the authority
of the Presidency
Where in the Constitution did the Founding Fathers make room for
b. Bill of Rights
c. Article I
The First Amendment guarantees the Freedom:
a. To vote
b. To a fair trial
All powers not delegated to the Federal government by the
to the states
to the people
to the states or to the people
0 - 5 Poorly informed.
the feature article.
Informed. Study to
become an expert.
- 15 Well
informed. Share your expertise with others.
1. B 6. A 11. B
2. A 7. B 12. A
3. C 8. C 13. A
4. C 9. B 14. C
5. B 10. C
Home - Top of Page